From the October 1998 issue of Startups

Fake fur was all the rage last year, but could fake rock be the foundation of a successful franchise this year? According to Tucson, Arizona-based Castart by NatureScapes Inc., your profits as a manufactured rock and water feature franchisee could be just a stone's throw away.

Castart's rock and water features are designed to transform humdrum backyards and office parks into calming oases. The company suggests marketing the scenes through pool and spa stores, model homes, garden shops and the like.

A $12,800 franchise fee includes a feature display, marketing materials, a protected territory and two weeks of training in which you'll learn to assemble and install displays as well as make sales calls.

Additional start-up costs range from $13,600 to $74,900, depending on the size of your territory. Territory sizes are determined by the volume of product you're willing to purchase. "This allows the franchise owners to decide on a territory size they feel comfortable with," explains Donald Gompers Isaacs, Castart's vice president of franchising. Royalty and advertising fees range from $125 per month to $600 per month, depending on territory size.

Castart has five franchised locations and is seeking franchisees nationwide. Call (800) 871-8838.

Package Deal

When you start a Val-Pak Direct Marketing franchise, you can make money by helping your neighbors save money. Largo, Florida-based Val-Pak Direct Marketing Systems Inc. assembles professionally printed coupon packages for you to mail to households in an exclusive territory. All you have to do is convince businesses in your area to include their coupons in the package.

"The franchisee brings together multiple businesses that share the cost of the envelopes to promote their businesses to households in the market," says Jeff Mitchell, vice president of finance and administration for Val-Pak.

The franchise fee is $5,000, and there are additional start-up costs of $20,000 or more, depending on the size of the territory. Franchisees receive extensive training and support: Val-Pak provides one week of initial training at the company headquarters, ongoing sales force training and hiring assistance, as well as a recently introduced field training program. The franchisor does all the artwork, printing and mailing; all you have to do is sell space in the mailers. There are no royalty or advertising fees.

Val-Pak currently has 270 units across North America and is seeking additional franchisees throughout the United States and Canada. For additional information, call (800) 237-6266.

Testing, Testing

Have you ever wished you could try running a franchise before you buy it? Wish granted: Denver-based The Alternative Board (TAB) offers its business advisory franchise on a three-month trial basis for "business associates"--with no franchise or royalty fees.

"Associates pay a small premium to test the franchise," says TAB senior vice president Lynette Fishman. "This gives us the ability to see if [potential franchisees] are right for us and gives them a chance to figure out `Is this a program I feel comfortable with?' "

Founded in 1990 by Fishman's father, Allen, TAB began franchising in 1996 and has 32 franchises in the United States and Canada. Franchisees act as network meeting facilitators, inviting eligible noncompeting businesspeople in their territories to meet and discuss business problems and opportunities.

Those who decide to become franchisees pay a $34,900 franchise fee, a 6 percent to 10 percent royalty fee, and initiation fees ranging from $375 to $750. Ideal candidates have at least 10 years of cash-flow and profit-and-loss experience.

A four-day training program at company headquarters is included in the franchise fee, and TAB membership developers visit your territory twice to help build membership and sit in on your first meeting, offering constructive criticism. Call (800) 727-0126 or visit http://www.thealternativeboard.com